Evidence from detrital zircons for the existence of continental crust and oceans on the Earth 4.4 Gyr ago


No crustal rocks are known to have survived since the time of the intense meteor bombardment that affected Earth1 between its formation about 4,550 Myr ago and 4,030 Myr, the age of the oldest known components in the Acasta Gneiss of northwestern Canada2. But evidence of an even older crust is provided by detrital zircons in metamorphosed sediments at Mt Narryer3 and Jack Hills4,5,6,7,8 in the Narryer Gneiss Terrane9, Yilgarn Craton, Western Australia, where grains as old as 4,276 Myr have been found4. Here we report, based on a detailed micro-analytical study of Jack Hills zircons10, the discovery of a detrital zircon with an age as old as 4,404 ± 8 Myr—about 130 million years older than any previously identified on Earth. We found that the zircon is zoned with respect to rare earth elements and oxygen isotope ratios (δ18O values from 7.4 to 5.0‰), indicating that it formed from an evolving magmatic source. The evolved chemistry, high δ18O value and micro-inclusions of SiO2 are consistent with growth from a granitic melt11,2 with a δ18O value from 8.5 to 9.5‰. Magmatic oxygen isotope ratios in this range point toward the involvement of supracrustal material that has undergone low-temperature interaction with a liquid hydrosphere. This zircon thus represents the earliest evidence for continental crust and oceans on the Earth.

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Figure 1: Cathodoluminescence and back-scattered electron images of zircon crystal W74/2-36.
Figure 2: Combined concordia plot for grain W74/2-36, showing the U-Pb results obtained during the two analytical sessions.
Figure 3: Rare earth element data for Jack Hills zircon W74-2/36 measured by ion microprobe.


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We thank A. Nemchin for assistance with the cathodoluminescence imaging, J. Craven for assistance in stable isotope analysis by ion microprobe and J. Fournelle for assistance with electron microprobe analysis. Initial fieldwork was supported by the Australian Research Council and analytical work by NERC, NSF and the US Department of Energy. D. Nelson and K. McNamara kindly commented on the manuscript.

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Wilde, S., Valley, J., Peck, W. et al. Evidence from detrital zircons for the existence of continental crust and oceans on the Earth 4.4 Gyr ago. Nature 409, 175–178 (2001). https://doi.org/10.1038/35051550

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